Category Archives: The Real World

“Lockdowns don’t work!”

“Lockdowns don’t work!”

Sorry, reality disagrees. This graph shows Covid-19 infection rates from the Government’s data as of today. I have superimposed pink boxes showing the 2nd lockdown (5th November–2nd December) and 3rd lockdown (4th January, ongoing.

This isn’t complicated.

What Skyrim taught me about wealth

A few years ago, I got into playing Skyrim on our XBox 360. There are many wonderful things about Skyrim, including its immersive sense of place, its vast and varying geography, its brooding landscapes and complementary atmospheric music, its epic scope, its interesting NPCs, its endless range of ways to power up, and so on.

Early in the game, when cash was scarce, I got into a routine that each dungeon I entered, I would carefully loot every vase and chest, and strip every monster I killed of its weapons, armour and valuables; then when I was done I’d return to civilisation and sell off the spare armour, weapons, etc. Continue reading

When is competition beneficial?

Over on DanThinksAbout, in a discussion of the public and private sectors, Dan mentions the benefit of markets: that “competing firms innovate in the hope of getting ahead, and successful innovations make the firms that adopt them successful”. This left me thinking about the nature of competition, and of how it leads us to expend our effort. When it is beneficial?


When we think about competition in markets, we tend to think about Asus, Dell and Lenovo all competing to build better laptops at lower cost, and the resulting downward pressure on prices — which is obviously good for consumers.

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How to run 5 km (aging, overweight people edition)

[A quick break from the Heavy Metal Timeline series. We’ll get right back to that after this announcement.]

I am no kind of athlete. Even as a kid, I was a slow runner. I loved football, but I was never a good player. Humiliatingly, I could never think quickly on the pitch, to spot the pass others miss — the one thing I might legitimately have expected to be good at.


And now I’m 46 years old, I weigh 104 kg, I have a BMI of 31.3 which makes me clinically obese, and my job is the most sedentary imaginable: I walk the five meters from my bed to my desk every morning and spend all day sitting in front of a computer.

That means that if I can run 5 km, so can you!

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We’re selling our model railway

Remember back in 2011 we started building a new model railway? (That blogging series didn’t really get off the ground — though I’ll finish it one day, because the actual railway has come out pretty nicely.) But in part zero of that series, I showed our older railway, built in 2004:


Well, we’re selling that railway now on eBay. We need to recover some space, and we can’t really justify keeping both old and new layouts.

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Guinnevere, at Goodrich Village Hall

For anyone who retains some scepticism that I sing at folk clubs, here is a rather poor-quality video of our indifferent performance last night of the superb Crosby, Stills and Nash song Guinnevere, which you can hear on their first album. Or on YouTube. You should listen to that, not this:

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Why armed guards in schools are a bad idea

I just saw this tweet from National Rifle Association (NRA):

On the assumption that this is a genuine query, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about some simple statistics and probabilities.


First, Wikipedia notes that four presidents (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy) have been shot by assassins. For simplicity, we will leave aside the failed assassination attempts on thirteen other presidents (and the failed attempts on the lives of Lincoln and Kennedy before the successful ones). Let’s consider the time from Lincoln’s death to now (147 years from 1865 to 2012), and say that the chance of a president being shot dead in any given year is 4 in 147, or about one in 40. (The real chance is surely much higher than that — note that there have been attempts on the lives of all the last eight presidents.)

The population of the US is 315 million, of which 27.3% are under 20 years of age. Let’s assume that about half of those are school age (between 5 and 15), which is 43 million schoolchildren. In 2012, there have been seven notable school shootings, but “only” 29 children murdered as a result. So let’s say that the chance of schoolchild being shot dead in any given year is 29 in 43 million, or about one in 1,500,000.

There were 600 accidental deaths by gunshot in the USA in 2010. Somewhere in the range of 30-34% of adults own a gun. Given that there are 230 million adults in the USA (and assuming that the number of children owning guns is negligible), that means there are about 74 million gun owners in the USA. So the chance of any gun owner accidentally killing someone in a given year is 600 in 74 million, or about one in 123,000.

In reality, of course the armed guards who protect the president are the best of the best: very highly trained, and much less like to have accidents than the general gun-owning population. But even assuming they are no more competent than hypothetical armed school guards, here’s how it works out.

  • Giving the president an armed guard increases his chance of being shot, due to accident, by one in 123,000. Given that his chance of being shot is already one in 40, this is negligible.
  • Giving children an armed guard increases their chance of being shot, due to accident, by one in 123,000. Given that their chance of being shot was previously one in 15,000,000, it means they are now 122 times as likely to be shot.

These numbers are all approximate. I could easily be wrong by a factor of two or more. Even if I’m wrong by a factor of six, it still means that the president is much, much, much better off with an armed guard where as a schoolchild would be twenty times as likely to be shot.

I hope that clears things up.

Help the USA into the 21st century (even if you’re not American)

[This is cross-posted from my other blog, Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Week. I never cross-post: this is, as far as I remember, literally the first time I have done it. But this issue is so important and so urgent that I am making an exception. Please, please: sign the petition, upvote the Reddit and Hacker News submissions, blog about it, tweet about it, tell your friends.]


Good news! If you want to read research that was funded by the U.S. National Instututes of Health (NIH), you can. Their public access policy means that papers published on their dime become universally accessible in PubMed Central.

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Can birds fly into a headwind that is faster than their own maximum speed?

I just read this snippet in Gerald L. Wood’s fascinating Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats, 3rd edition [,]:

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My plan for 2012: do things that children do

20th January may seem a strange day to make a New Year’s resolution, but it’s not so much a resolution as a gradually growing realisation of what I want out of the year.  Now that I’ve figured it out, I thought I might as well share it here.

When kids are growing up, adults decide what they’re going to do.  And not only do we make better choices for kids than they would make for themselves, we make better choices for them than we do for ourselves.  Here’s what kids do:

  • Learn things (in school)
  • Play sports (also in school, if not elsewhere)
  • Sing and play instruments (e.g. school concerts)
  • Draw and paint
  • Write stories

(They also play video games and watch TV, but let’s ignore those for now because those are things that adults also do plenty of.)

All those things are fun.  Adults choose them for kids because they know that they’ll enjoy themselves, that they’ll develop their creativity, that they’ll be healthy.  Then having set our kids off on that trajectory, we slump in front of our computers for eight or twelve hours every day.

In 2012, I’m going to do those things, too.  Why should kids have all the fun?

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